Saturday, July 09, 2011
“Six Weeks in Saratoga” Excerpt: Chapter 3—Is She the One?
The following is an excerpt from "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year.
The June sky was a radiant blue with suspended marshmallow clouds. Underneath this sky Rachel Alexandra, upon the urging of her jockey, Calvin Borel, saw a seam between the two fillies before her, and she split them like firewood. All Borel had to do was stay in the saddle as Rachel Alexandra opened up and up on this field in the Grade 1 11/8 miles $300,000 Mother Goose. The track camera panned out, yet still lacked the range to capture the other two horses. The gap between Rachel Alexandra and the field was nineteen and a half lengths by the time her flared nostrils hit the wire, an equally brilliant performance that brought back memories of the Kentucky Oaks, just less than two months ago. She soared over the dirt, bounding close to thirty feet per stride.
In the weeks leading up to the Mother Goose, the speculation for her next start caused a stir. Her Kentucky Oaks win was greeted with questions about whether or not she should have been running the following day in the Kentucky Derby. But after her goose‑bump-inducing win against the boys in the Preakness Stakes, she then became a drumming pulse not just on the racing scene but on the sports scene.
For Borel this trip with Rachel Alexandra to New York and to Belmont Park would be his second, his first since the disaster that was the Belmont Stakes. That experience grated at him and his agent, Jerry Hissam. Borel was chastised for not taking any mounts prior to the Belmont Stakes: instead he was seen walking the streets of New York with his fiancée, Lisa Funk. Perhaps Borel, a Kentucky jockey, was not refusing mounts but, rather, was not offered any. So the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes saw him aboard Mine That Bird, he Kentucky Derby winner. The trainer of Mine That Bird, Bennie “Chip” Woolley, took Borel back. The two do share a diamond-crusted Derby ring that will forever bind them. But in this Belmont Stakes, Borel moved Mine That Bird sooner than most expected, and by the end dueled with Dunkirk and finished third. Now the jockey whom everyone adored was being whipped. He moved too early! He should have had more mounts! Had they forgotten that just three weeks earlier Borel had left the Kentucky Derby with white paint on his left boot when he sliced up the rail on Mine That Bird to win? It was the day after he won the Kentucky Oaks by twenty and a quarter lengths aboard Rachel Alexandra.
Mine That Bird aimed for the Preakness. But what would happen to Rachel Alexandra, and who would Borel choose should both go to Maryland for the Preakness? For Borel there was no choice; he would ride Rachel Alexandra, but first it had to be determined whether Rachel Alexandra would run against the boys in the first place.
Dolphus Morrisson, the breeder and owner of Rachel Alexandra for her Oaks win, entertained dozens of phone calls. Then, when wine magnate Jess Jackson called him on Wednesday, May 6, 2009, well, Morrisson threw out a number, an egregious number, and Jackson said it was too much, no deal. Morrisson knew it was too big a price, but he saw Rachel Alexandra as a once-in-lifetime horse, one he wanted to hang onto, and should she be taken from his hands, it had better be for a lot of clams. After a time, Jackson got back on the phone, and said, reluctantly, that they had a deal. Though confidentiality agreements were signed by both parties, that number was said to be as high as $5 million . . . for a filly.
What prompted the deal was what Morrisson said following the Kentucky Oaks: that the Triple Crown races were for future stallions, and that fillies should not run against colts and geldings. This was perceived as chauvinistic, narrow‑minded, and even maddening, because he was sitting on Rachel Alexandra when she could be the fastest horse—male or female—in North America, but who would know? Jackson, revered as a gamesman, willing to keep horses in training, and willing to take chances with his horses by putting them in unconventional spots, put his money where his head was. What he saw in Rachel Alexandra was a generational horse, one for the ages, and there was no price too high to see whether he was right or wrong.
So Calvin Borel did the unthinkable. He took himself off the Kentucky Derby winner for Rachel Alexandra. Borel became the first jockey to take off the Derby winner for another horse in the Preakness. This, he knew, would be met with criticisms and darts, because it seemed that, on the surface, he kicked up sand and mud in the face of Mine That Bird and his connections, namely, trainer Chip Woolley. But just like Jess Jackson, he put his money where his head was, because even Borel saw that Rachel Alexandra was a generational horse, one for the ages, and it seemed there was no price too high to see whether he was right or wrong.
This brought Borel to Belmont Park, since Jackson and new trainer Steve Asmussen decided to rest Rachel Alexandra for a race farther downstream. Woolley welcomed Borel back on Mine That Bird, a gelding with a Derby win and a Preakness runner-up in a five-week span, to try and tackle the Triple Crown from the jockey’s angle. No, Borel failed in the Belmont Stakes, but he knew he would be back, and beneath that perennial smile in the creases of his forty-two‑year‑old face burned a need to show just who was boss and who held pocket aces.
On Wednesday, June 24, 2009, the New York Racing Association hosted a national teleconference with Jess Jackson and Calvin Borel leading up to the
Mother Goose, which was to be her first race since the Preakness. Of course this followed Borel’s gaffe, if one wants to call it that, in the Belmont Stakes. Naturally all the reporters were eager to hear how Rachel Alexandra was doing and how she might do in her first race against fillies since she embarrassed them in the Kentucky Oaks. And the elephant in the room was whether or not Borel would take any mounts on the day of the Mother Goose. This, Borel felt, came with the turf.
“And first to Calvin,” Mike Ingram of BlackAthleteSports.net asked, “I’d like to know if you’re going to accept any mounts prior to getting on board Rachel in the Mother Goose at Belmont.”
This question, were it possible, should have been directed at Borel’s agent, Hissam, but Borel fielded it all the same. Borel just gets on them—he lets Hissam go ahead and book the mounts, as he had done in their previous nineteen years of business, business that went all the way back to the Bayou.
“I really don’t know yet, sir,” Borel said. “I think my agent said I had a couple maybe to ride the day before. But it really doesn’t matter. You know, I know the track and I know my filly and I know what she wants and where we’re going to be. It really doesn’t matter. But I think I’m going to ride one other, two other horses actually for Ian Wilkes, I think.”
Wilkes, a Kentucky trainer, books Borel for many of his horses and he ships to New York for marquee race days his stock from barns eight hundred miles away. This idea that Borel rode only the big horses, like a diva jockey, was a myth. If Borel had his druthers, he would ride a number of horses every day, especially on a race day where the stakes are higher than just money. Borel gets out on the track and feels how his horse sinks into the dirt, how his horse gets over the ground, whether the rail is sticky, or if it is best to pilot his horse wider. Such details travel in a sort of osmosis into the psyche of the rider over the course for the day. Would Borel need this for a projected three-horse field in the Mother Goose against fillies that constituted junior varsity competition? The answer, in this case, was probably no, but reporters and fans alike would have circled like vultures should Borel err, ready to point straight to the fact that he had not been on a horse leading up to the race of merit.
Winning puts animosity to bed, and this was the case when Borel rode Rachel Alexandra in the Mother Goose. Gone were the questions of whether or not he should be riding more horses or not. Perhaps he would be vindicated on this front should he be a regular rider for an entire meet when surrounded by all things New York—jocks, trainers, and horses. He’d be given that chance, or at least that was his hope, for when he was asked whether or not he would be riding at Saratoga he said, “Yes, sir. I sure am. Yes, sir.”
And the reason, the only reason, was because of Rachel Alexandra.
After the Mother Goose, Rachel Alexandra scarfed down her food as if she had been starved all day. This training-by-the-feed tub is a good sign that after she set a stakes record her appetite was every bit as strong as it was the morning of the race. Even the next day, she ate every last bit of grain, an indicator that she was a happy horse ready for the next challenge.
Barely twelve hours after her record-setting win in the Mother Goose, Rachel Alexandra was on a van heading north to Saratoga Springs, accompanied by the thirty-five-year-old Scott Blasi, assistant trainer to Steve Asmussen. The van grumbled out of Gotham and onto the Northway in the late-June air. Some four or five hours later, Blasi led her off the van and into Stall No. 1, next to his office, the same stall that was occupied by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, owned by the same man, Jess Jackson, and conditioned by the same trainer, Steve Asmussen. Naturally the hope was that Curlin’s greatness would rub off on her, though that may not be necessary. Rachel Alexandra, at this point, was her own name, her own brand, and great by any stretch. Comparisons to Curlin may be unfair to Curlin. No matter, this was where she would take residence for the summer and, presumably, into the fall. A number of races were tossed like angel hair, such as the Coaching Club American Oaks for fillies, the Jim Dandy on opening weekend at Saratoga, the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, or Rachel Alexandra’s first test against older fillies and mares in a try against the unbeaten mare Zenyatta in the Personal Ensign, also at Saratoga. Principal owner Jess Jackson knows well the rivalries in the sport of horse racing, being a part of one in 2008 with Curlin and the Big Brown camp. Words were traded like jabs and uppercuts, but Big Brown came down with a foot injury prior to the Breeders’ Cup, and the two never met. Now Jackson had Rachel Alexandra, and Jerry and Ann Moss had Zenyatta out West.
In North America, in 2009, it was said that the two best horses in the country were females, so what more could racing want than to see two competitive females squaring off, taking the spotlight away from the colts and geldings? Over the coming weeks and months, no subject in racing would be talked about more than Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Jackson’s camp was well versed in the Curlin-Big Brown sparring of a year ago. Their worry, if there was any, was the health of their champion filly. There would be time for that later, but it was evident that Jackson wanted a third consecutive Horse of the Year title, and that his only shot at it in 2009 was on the back of Rachel Alexandra. The feeling was that a meeting with Zenyatta would determine Horse of the Year honors come January 18, 2010, the date of the Eclipse Awards. Still, perhaps Jackson would have an ace up his sleeve that could trump all. Yes, the Zenyatta–Rachel talk percolated, but these horses are Fabergé eggs or the freshly frozen film of ice on a lake. No one could be more disappointed than the person who has expectations in a game so full of uncertainty.
As the van taxiing Rachel Alexandra neared Exit 12 on the Northway, the median was blanketed with a sheet of black-eyed Susans, the simply elegant flower that looks like oro, a golden propeller in constant motion. Normally it would have been just a pretty sight along a highway’s scenery that becomes mundane in the rippling summer heat, but this median carried an extra bout of meaning, as if whoever planted those flowers knew who was coming. Black-eyed Susans are the flower of choice for the Preakness Stakes, the race that made Rachel Alexandra a superstar and put her in Vogue magazine, and now before her it unrolled like a carpet, a yellow-brick road, on the way to the track that would be her home for the next 111 days.
Come back Saturday July 16th to see what else was up to in Six Weeks in Saratoga. You can order a copy from SUNY Press or from a your favorite bookseller. "Like" "Six Weeks in Saratoga" on Facebook and follow Brendan O'Meara on Twitter.
Posted by permission from Six Weeks in Saratoga by Brendan O'Meara, the State University of New York Press (c)2011, State University of New York. All rights reserved.